Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ross Macdonald - The Drowning Pool


            In this review of Tom Nolan’s biography of Ross Macdonald -
- which really isn’t a review of the biography at all but, rather, a short complaining session in which the reviewer gets to express his dislike of Macdonald’s novels – Terry Teachout does make one crucial point.  He notes that Macdonald relies heavily on “overcooked similes”.  I object to “overcooked”, but it is true that similes are Macdonald’s bread and butter in terms of style and also that, in some of the novels, what seems like a constant use of them can tend to be distracting.
            This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996).  I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few.  I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.

            The Drowning Pool is the second of the eighteen Archer novels; in it, Macdonald still hasn’t found the rock solid formulas that appear to first surface with The Galton Case and continue on up to The Blue Hammer.  In the earlier Archer books he’s still dabbling a little too much in the Hammet, Chandler, hardboiled school.  The Drowing Pool has more than a fair share of a lot of gimmicky shtick.  Before I discuss it in a little detail I would like to list and quote the first ten similes similes I uncovered in the first sixty two pages of the book, doing so for perspective’s sake. 

1.      She turned to me like a musician from his piano. (p. 13)
2.      …and circled the mugging pair like a referee. (p. 18)
3.      A chandelier of yellowing crystal hung down from the central beam like a misshapen stalactite. (p. 32)
4.      A trace of hysteria came into her voice like a thin entering wedge.  (p. 33)
5.      …her breasts pressed together like clenched fists in the V of her neckline. (p.39)
6.      She looked around blindly and gaily like a bird… (p. 50)
7.      Meditatively, she fingered herself, like a butcher testing meat which had hung too long.  (p. 51)
8.      The trickle of melody gradually filled the room like clear water… (p. 52)
9.      …the girls with oil or gold or free-flowing real-estate money in their blood like blueing.  (p. 54)
10.  He smiled bleakly, as a monk might smile over the memory of an ecstasy.  (p. 60)
*


With that out of the way, we might move on to some of the things that
constitute the guts of the novel – indeed, some of these are part of the guts that make up all of Macdonald’s work.  One, the mixing and fusing together of the past and present,
comes up in the very first paragraph of The Drowning Pool as Archer contemplates Maude Slocum.  Speaking of her eyes he observes “They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had.”  A short time later, of Maude again: “But her eyes looked past me, and far beyond the room.”  Again, in the same scene: “Some guilt or fear was drawing her backward steadily, so that she had to enthuse and emote and be admired in order to stay in the same place.” 
                                                                        *         
A different kind of  example of how some consistent themes flow through Macdonald’s novels might be gotten from a brief comparison between passages from The Moving Target, the first Archer novel, and The Drowning Pool.  These clips all seem to have come out of the same notebook, which is a fairly common occurrence in the early novels of highly talented novelists.  In The Moving Target Archer observes of Miranda “Her light-brown coat fell open in front, and  her small sweatered breasts, pointed like weapons, were half impatient promise, half gradual threat. “  In The Drowning Pool he says of Maude Slocum “Her whole body heaved in the zebra-striped dress, and her breasts pressed together like round clenched fists in the V of her neckline.”  In both novels there are extended passages in which Archer observes himself in a mirror – in the earlier book this happens in Ralph Sampson’s astrology room, in the latter in Gretchen Keck’s trailer.  And in both novels the deep, rich tans of both Maude Slocum and Mrs. Sampson are noticed by Archer with great care. 

                                                            *
As Peter Wolfe points out in his excellent, excellent study on Macdonald entitled Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, in the fully mature Archer novels one person does all the murderous damage, commits all the killings; here, in The Drowning Pool, blame is all over the place.  Cathy kills her grandmother; the lynching party does in Pat Reavis; Mavis kills her husband; Maude Slocum takes her own life.  The kind of sin, or evil,that functions at a metaphysical, baseline level in the later work hasn’t completely been worked out by Macdonald yet, here.  He’s still reaching for gangsters, thugs, corrupt businessmen, and the like to pin at least some of the wrongdoing on. 
                                                            *
We could plausibly apply the title The Drowning Pool to three things in the story.  Two are quite literal – the pool at the Slocum house in which Olivia drowns and the hydro-torture room, Melliotes’ death chamber, at the Angel Of Mercy home (this latter supplies the opportunity for the most cartoonish, superhero like moment for Archer in the book).  The third is actually called the drowning pool, a symbolic name given to the hectic frenzied relations between the sexes:
            “Her mouth was dark and glistening.  I kissed her, felt her toe press on my instep, her hand move on my body.  I drew back from the whirling vortex that had opened, thedrowning pool. She wriggled and sighed, and went to sleep in my arms.”
                                                            *


Years ago on the back covers of some editions of the Lew Archer paperbacks the following quote from Robert B. Parker used to appear regularly:
            “It was not just that Ross Macdonald taught us how to write;
             he did something much more, he taught us how to read, and how to think
             about life, and maybe, in some small but mattering way, how to live…”
I used to mull this over and think, “How to live?  That seems a little over the top.”  However now, in combing through a lot of the Archer novels with some care, I think I know what Parker was getting at.  It has to do with Macdonald’s sheer powers of observation in respect to people and their lives – but more so in respect to his secondary characters rather than his main ones.  His psychological observations, his methods of presentation, his ability to portray – these are all jaw dropping.  I think, indeed, that if one could train oneself to observe people in the real world the way Macdonald appears to have been able to do that that would most certainly be a lesson in how to live.  It’s very similar to having caught, in a flickering second, a Picasso-like mask on a person’s face and thus “getting” Picasso for real, understanding that you are being taught a different way of seeing by this man.
            Here I’m going to restrict myself to commenting on just two examples from the novel and an interesting hook that Macdonald used to connect them. 
            In Chapter 2 Archer drives to Quinto, after being hired by Maude Slocum, and takes a room at the Motel del Mar where he meets the innkeeper and his wife.  The wife, who remains unnamed, is a fussbucket who talks up the town, the motel, and how she and her husband, Henry, “make quite a game out of it”.  While she talks to Archer her husband, Henry, mainly grunts.  As Archer is leaving Henry runs out of the motel office, having mistaken Archer’s comments that he would like to settle in Quinto for real.  He mentions to Archer that he would like to sell the motel due to the fact that he has a chance to acquire a liquor license in Nopal, where there’s money to be made.
            Later, after Archer picks up Pat Reavis, they sit in a bar in Nopal owned by Antonio, an immigrant who tells Archer he’s been doing so well with his bar he’ll be able to retire in five years.  “I don’t have trouble with anybody” Antonio says, and Archer thinks:
                        I could see why in his face.  He had the authority of a man who had seen
                        everything and not been changed by it.
 This two sides of the same coin strategy is absolutely brilliant.  We know that Antonio is the kind of person who can succeed with a bar in Nopal, and we know that the innkeeper Henry is the kind of person who, even if he succeeds in selling the motel and getting the license, will fail at the same enterprise.  And Macdonald gets this across not by telling us but by showing us.  In book after book in the Archer novels the minor characters’ lives and personalities are elucidated in this almost breathtakingly impressive way.
            Before leaving The Drowning Pool to consider, next, what has to be by any standard one of the very best from the Archer series, Black Money, I’d simply like to bring attention to Macdonald’s capacity to notice details by way of a couple of examples.  (The examples of this we could cull from the book probably number in the hundreds.  Practicality dictates restriction.)
            Speaking of Knudson, he writes “His thick, square nailed fingers drummed on the table top.”  Speaking from my own reading experience, I would venture one could read a hundred novels in a row and not see a description of the shape of someone’s fingernails.  Later, at the jazz club called the Romp Room, “The drummer hit everything he had, drums, traps, cymbals, stamped on the floor, beat the rungs of his chair, banged the chrome rod that supported the microphone.”  This kind of attunement to the creation of sound could only come from someone who has spent time in jazz joints and listening to a lot of records – it connects the reader to the life of the author directly
                                                                        *

           


           


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Excerpt from CATCH THE NEAREST WAY

Excerpts from a projected book on Shakespeare...this material copyright 2014 by Peter Quinones.


Virginia Woolf – according to Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare – opined as such: “…the truest account of reading Shakespeare would be not to write a book with a beginning, middle, and end; but to collect notes without trying to make them consistent.”  This is very sage advice, and I will try to be faithful to the spirit of it here.
                                                                        *
            Every so often in the news we see a report emanating from a third world nation – a captain, perhaps, or a colonel, sunglasses on, pistol on his hip, has stormed the palace with his junta and led a coup.  We should understand – his great capacity for poetry, eloquence, and introspection not withstanding, Macbeth is exactly this kind of thug.
                                                                        *
            The amount of literature in existence about Macbeth is unmanageable for any one individual.  I’m a novice.  I’ve done very little reading in the slatternly intermezzo we call Theory; one reason for this is what seems to me to be Brian Vickers’ utter demolition of it in Appropriating Shakespeare
            Most of my reading on the play has been in the type of criticism that I’ll call the High Lofty which, in my judgment, is just as dangerous for studying Shakespeare as Theory is.  Essentially Bardolatry on steroids, some of the notable practicioners have been Van Doren, Goddard, Hazlitt, Bloom, Bradley, Nuttall, etc. 
            The grandmaster of Shakespeare criticism is, in my inexpert view, Spurgeon.  I will return to her case for regarding Macbeth as a mean, cruel, and petty man way out of his depth a little bit later on.
                                                                        *
            My overall view is that, like it or not, in this day and age the most profitable way to get a handle on Shakespeare is to view the many different presentations of a given play that are available on film in conjunction with as much  primary and secondary reading as one cares to do.  Of course, we know that down through the ages numerous critics have taken the position that Shakespeare is primarily for reading, not for performance.  Granted, many of these critics mainly had the theater in mind, but we can comfortably assume that they would hold the same opinion of the cinema.  (As an example of this sort of belief, Goddard writes somewhat contemptuously of “some obliterating actress” playing Rosalind in As You Like It and why the “imaginative man” always prefers to read the play rather than see it.  Lord!)
            This point of view is most unfortunate.  I say this because one can be the most profound, insightful reader in the history of the Milky Way galaxy and still not be able to intellectualize and visualize with more profit than one can get from a viewing a few different cinematic interpretations of a play and comparing them against each other and against Shakespeare’s words.


            Here are two examples, both from offerings of the Scottish play, of the enormous power of the cinema in articulating Shakespeare:
1)      In Casson’s 1978 film featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company, the early scenes show one of the three witches broken out in an intense feverish sweat, barely able to walk or speak.  She is quite noticeably in this condition; the other two are not.  Much later on – most graphically during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” sequence – McKellen is shown in the same state of heated physical fervor.  The visual implication is unmistakable: the same possessing spirit that gripped her body is now gripping his.  Whether or not we feel this to be a legitimate interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing is beside the point, which is that it would be extremely unlikely for this impression to be gotten solely from reading.
2)      In Jack Gold’s film for the BBC series in the early 1980s the sky, in the scene in which Duncan, Banquo and others arrive at Inverness, is lit a brilliant and intense orange behind them.  The gate of the castle stands opened, and the bars of it, sharpened at the ends like swords or spikes, are filmed in the foreground in such a way that they appear to be coming down right on the heads of Banquo and Duncan.  This visual evocation of danger and betrayal anthropomorphizes the castle in a way I don’t think reading alone ever could. 

*
            Yet, obviously, reading the plays allows us to compare them with each other, and thus get a sense of Shakespeare as a whole, in a way that viewing films cannot.  Nuttall makes an important point in both A New Mimesis and Shakespeare the Thinker  - that Shakespeare often recycles but never merely repeats himself.
             As an example, take some lines from Macbeth that could just as easily have been in Othello – “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” and “False face must hide what the false heart doth know”.  Someone with a full command of all the plays, I’m sure, could fill many many pages with examples of such criss crossing.  I’m a novice, similar to Colin Wilson with The Outsider.
                                                                       
                                                                        *
            What is Macbeth about?  A small sample of comments from The Big Lofty will give us some ideas of what some have thought. 
            Goddard actually claims that the knocking scene is “a poetical effect beyond the capacity of the stage” and that no actor can possibly properly capture the intended effect of the line “This is the door” that Macbeth utters to Macduff after the murder of Duncan.  This is all to be tied in with an alleged voice from “the bottom of the universe”. 
            In his introduction to a Pelican edition of the play Harbage writes that Shakespeare at his sharpest can push up against the boundaries of what is expressible in words and that “Some of the speeches seem to express the agony of all mankind.”  In an introduction to a Signet edition Barnet writes that “When one sees or reads Macbeth one cannot help feeling that one is experiencing a re-creation of what man is, in the present, even in the timeless.”  Bloom makes the astounding statement that “Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth, our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable.”  And so forth. 
            All these are outrageous, unprovable sorts of claims that are characteristic of The Grand Lofty.  Elaborate metaphysical speculation might make our spirits soar for a while, but in my estimation we do well to be perhaps a bit more grounded.  What do the characters in the play actually do?  What is the genesis of their activity?  What they do in large measure is deliver and receive messages, news bulletins and reports which, in the main, recipients do not question the veracity of and which, in the main, contain true and accurate information.  Indeed, the words “report” and “news” and their synonyms appear quite often in the play.
Below I present twenty examples from the drama to support my observation and comment briefly.
            ONE
             Act 1, Scene 2 - Here the bloody man delivers a report – and Duncan actually says “He can report” – about Macbeth’s bravery and courage. 
            A word about this – Duncan seems to be excessively trusting.  Perhaps this is why he is habitually betrayed by people like Cawdor and Macbeth.  It seems a trifle odd to me that, for instance, he is relying on the contingency of a chance, accidental meeting with a wounded soldier for information about how his own army is performing.  Wouldn’t the king have an extensive network of spies and scouts?  (As Macbeth himself is shown to have once he becomes king.)
            TWO
            Act 1, Scene 2 – Ross arrives to report of Macbeth’s bravery versus Norway.  Again, Duncan appears to be relying on complete happenstance for this important information.  He doesn’t even recognize Ross, one of his own thanes!
            THREE
            Act 1, Scene 3 – Here the three witches report to each other.  Largely irrelevant.
            FOUR
            Act 1, Scene 4 – Here Malcolm brings news to Duncan of Cawdor’s execution.  The scene is important because it stresses Duncan’s na├»ve consciousness.  He mentions his “absolute trust” in Cawdor – he is about to place the same in Macbeth, with a worse result. 
            FIVE
            Act 1, Scene 5 – Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth fills her in on the prophecies of the witches and their subsequent coming true.  It’s important to note that the witches’ predictions early on are given full credence while, further on, the importance of their later ones is perhaps not fully appreciated by Macbeth.
            SIX
            Act 1, Scene 5 – The servant brings Lady Macbeth the news that Duncan will visit that night.  Notice that in this brief conversation both “tidings” and “news” appear, thus strengthening the theme.
            SEVEN
            Act 1, Scene 7 - “How now!  What news?”
            EIGHT
            Act 2, Scene 2 – Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth the killing of Duncan
            NINE
            Act 3, Scene 1 – Macbeth reveals (to the audience) through his dialogue with the hired murderers that he has reported news of Banquo’s wrongdoings against the murderers to them, the murderers.  This is the one place where we might wonder if the news report in question is true or not.  It may not be – Banquo does not appear to have been the type for malicious foul play. 
            TEN
            Act 3, Scene 4 – The Murderer brings the news of Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth.
            ELEVEN
            Act 3, Scene 6 – The unnamed LORD reports to Lennox that Malcolm and Macduff are in England seeking the aid of Edward.
            TWELVE
            Act 4, Scene 1 – The apparitions deliver predictions which we may consider news by this point in the play, though I acknowledge this characterization might be questioned.
            THIRTEEN
            Act 4, Scene 1 – Lennox reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England.
            FOURTEEN
            Act 4, Scene 2 - The messenger arrives to advise Lady Macduff to flee.
            FIFTEEN
            Act 4, Scene 3 – Ross brings Macduff the dreadful news.
            SIXTEEN
            Act 5, Scene 2 – Caithness provides Mentieth will military intelligence.
            SEVENTEEN
            Act 5, Scene 3 – “Bring me no more reports.”
            EIGHTEEN
            Act 5, Scene 5 - Seyton gives the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
            NINETEEN
            Act 5, Scene 5 – The messenger reports that Birnam Wood is moving.
            TWENTY
            Act 5, Scene 8 – Macduff gives the news that he is not of woman born!



            Thusly, twenty instances of the motif.  This is evidently a world in which delivered messages count for much – or, to be more accurate, at least a play in which they do.   It would be well beyond the scope of my knowledge or expertise about medieval Scotland to state categorically that “This society functioned in large measure on the backs of messengers” although such a statement is probably a good guess. 
It is also a likely good guess that much more could be learned about this play from an intensive study of the available literature on the psychology of dictators rather than wanton High Romantic Bardolatry about “unseen forces that shape our lives” or  New Historicist wish fulfillment about the tenets of Elizabethan society or, gulp, Parisian effluvia.  I grant you that very few people who are interested in imaginative literature (let’s cling stubbornly to the term) either as a career or a hobby are going to want to put in the time and effort required to slough through much technical work on said psychology, but I would not hesitate to bet that a careful study of the life, say, of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein would reveal quite a few dispositions to behavior similar to those of Macbeth.  (Goddard, to his credit, recognizes the applicability of parts of the play to the behavior of certain twentieth century dictators.  So does Mary McCarthy in her essay.  Rupert Goold sets his film, about which I will have much to say, upon this very idea as a basic operating principle.)  If there is any kind of universalism to be found in literature it is in comparative research such as this. 
Another important topic to be given attention in the overall study of Macbeth should be, I venture, the psychology of ambition.  George H.W. Bush was once asked why he wanted to be President of the United States.  His answer was “For the honor of it all.”  This seems to me to be exactly the kind of ambition the Macbeths exhibit, a kind of directionless, ambiguous desire for glory – holding a position just for the sake of holding it, with no higher or more dignified purpose -which is fine, given that there are probably very few of us who could articulate the meaningful goals behind our ambitions at a moment’s notice.  And again, I understand that there are most likely not a lot of people who work in the humanities who are going to be inclined to do reading of this sort (I mean technical research in clinical psychology) , and we probably don’t have enough information on the Macbeths’ background, their lives before the play, to definitively state the motivation for their ambition to be king and queen, but it’s fairly clear to me that this desire is entirely selfish and comparatively shallow and superficial, not unlike the desire of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton to be celebrities.  Scream if you want, but show me the differences based on the available literature about the research. 
                                                           
                                                                        *
            In The Mystery of Macbeth Amneus, despite some rather tortured arguments about various other subjects, make the golden observation that when Shakespeare hits upon a narrative problem he often simply ignores it and hopes the audience doesn’t catch it, or else he resorts to poetry.  In Macbeth there are two giant problems of this nature.  In his film Roman Polanski actually comes up with a logical, though perhaps unintentional, solution to one of these.
            The problem is as follows.  Early in the play Macbeth and Banquo, on their way to Forres, stumble upon the witches on the blasted heath.  The witches ambush them, speak for a short while, and then vanish into the air.  Later, Macbeth wishes to consult with them a second time.  How does he know where to find them?  I may be wrong, and I apologize if I am, but as far as I can see Shakespeare doesn’t tell us how Macbeth knows where they are.  The fact that he does find them is a glaring example of plot contrivance.  Polanski gets around this by having Macbeth and Banquo stumble upon the witches’ lair on the trek to Forres – they actually see where the witches “live”.  (Amusingly, one of the witches is brushing another’s hair as Macbeth and Banquo approach.)  Now, it is necessary for Polanski to show us the lair due to the little twist he throws in in the last seconds of his film, but it solves the earlier problem nonetheless – Macbeth is given a landmark with which to work.
            Here’s a second problem of the narrative: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot to kill Duncan so that Macbeth may ascend to throne.  However, Macbeth is not properly the next in line – Malcolm is.  Yet, in the course of their planning, the Macbeths make no provisions whatsoever for this inconvenience. They simply plow forward as though Macbeth is the rightful successor to Duncan.  Of course, Malcolm flees and so the point as a matter of practicality is made moot, but this is just a happy coincidence.  How might the play be different if, upon hearing of his father’s death, Malcolm had said “Well, let’s start making the arrangements for my coronation right after dad’s funeral”?

                                                                        *
            Act 1, Scene 1, of course establishes the eerie tone of the play.  As happens in almost all celluloid Shakespeare, Polanski cuts the original text to ribbons in order to suit his purposes. 
            “I come, Graymalkin.”  “Paddock calls.”  “Anon.”  To a diehard purist the cutting of these lines may represent a cardinal sin; to someone acquainted with, but not totally obsessed by, the play it may or may not even be noticed; and to someone counting this film as their first exposure to Macbeth it obviously won’t matter very much at all.  Polanski not only cuts the dialogue - he rearranges it and moves it around in spots as well. Here, the first words the witches speak in this scene are “Fair is foul…” etc., which in the scene as Shakespeare wrote it are the last words they say.  It’s not an effective choice.  The difference between having a character ask the question “When shall we three meet again?” as the leadoff speech on the one hand and having three characters chant a slogan in unison on the other is actually monumental.  In the first case we might immediately think things like, Oh, they meet regularly.  Oh, their preferred meeting conditions are thunder, lightning and rain and not pleasant beach days that are eighty degrees and sunny.  Oh, I wonder why they meet anyway, and so on.  Hearing them chant a song doesn’t produce this kind of reaction.  Shakespeare’s original order is much more effective.
            That said, the opening shots of a beach locale changing colors – first red, then brownish-gray, then blue, with seagulls singing overhead, establish the undeniable visual beauty of the film that Polanksi and his cinematographer Gil Taylor maintain throughout.  The three weird ones walk into the frame from the left, pushing a little cart along in the sand.  They stop, kneel, dig in the sand, and bury a severed human hand with a dagger positioned in it, as well as a noose, in the cool wet earth.  They quickly make a little grave out of this, pouring potions over it and spitting.  The few lines of dialogue are spoken by only two; the youngest, most “attractive” one doesn’t speak at all (she is the one who later flashes her female parts at Macbeth and Banquo after the first prophecies are delivered).  Here they speak calmly, conversationally, almost casually, something they do not do in the other three films I am going to discuss here.  The wheels of their cart squeak as they go off down the shoreline, and then the screen goes blank as the credits begin to roll against the background noise of the battle where Macbeth unseams Macdonwald. 
            It isn’t easy for me to assess whether or not this clip establishes the mood Shakespeare had in mind for this opening scene.  (Also, we must never forget the personal circumstances under which Polanski was making this film.) 
            In Shakespeare Van Doren wrote “Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it.  But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim.  And the weird sisters no less than he are instruments of an evil that employs them both and has roots running further into darkness than the mind can guess.”    Employs them for what purpose?  To kill Duncan?  Is it that evil employs the sisters to kill Duncan and they subcontract the work out to Macbeth?  Or is just that evil desires to produce random general mayhem with no specific targets?  What is this evil, anyway?  What kind of ontological status does it have?  What kind of existent is it?
            A final observation on this section – Polanski is a strong filmmaker with a very recognizable style, much like Kubrick or Antonioni.  Therefore a serious student is going to want to refer not only to Shakespeare but also to earlier films of this director such as Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby for reference.

                                                                        *



            Which brings up the question – should one view films of Shakespeare’s works as a film critic, or as a Shakespearean?  If there be anyone at all in the cosmos with any interest in what I have to say here, they would likely be one of three things -  a student of literature, a film buff, or a Shakespeare Phreak.  Depending upon one’s orientation, the attitude and approach will vastly differ.  A film buff would be perfectly willing to consider Polanski’s film of Macbeth on the same plane as an aesthetically brilliant but intellectually empty movie such as The Thomas Crown Affair; on the same plane as one of Chabrol’s psychologically acute and weird thrillers; and on the same plane as a Hollywood screwball comedy from the 1930s, and every other kind of film we care to name; a hardcore Shakespeare enthusiast would not be quite so willing.  In fact, to such a one to compare all these as equals would probably be heresy.
            (If I may briefly insert this as well – there are almost always live theater productions of the play going on somewhere.  Even as I write this Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed staging at the Armory has just ended and a Sydney Theater Company production featuring an avant-garde design by Alice Babidge is opening.  I reluctantly omit theater from this discussion simply because it’s hard to consult or refer to after the fact of the live performance is over.)


                                                                        *


            Casson’s 1978 film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation is done in a theater-in-the-round; the two opening shots establish and define the boundaries of the playing space first with an overhead shot and then with a ground level shot as the cast members walk onto the stage and sit in a circle.  The camera then pans the faces of the actors in a circular arc. A church organ plays the identical theme it will play later at Macbeth’s coronation.  Although many of Shakespeare’s plays engage in reflexitivity, Macbeth as he wrote it does not (except maybe for the porter scene and ‘equivocation’), therefore reflexitivity as it exists here is Casson’s insertion.  It’s a little bit, though not quite exactly, like the opening of The Taming of the Shrew. 
            Casson’s staging of the scene is deeply interesting.  The three witches emerge from the circle and group together.  One seems to be limping, and she sweats with intense fever (this is the same kind of feverish look McKellen is swathed in from the time of the rituals they perform on him in Act 4, Scene 1, on till the end of the production. – the implication is that the witches put this same spell that is making her sweat into him with their rites).  The witches tremble and chant unintelligibly.  While this is going on we see Macduff (who at this point is unknown to us as Macduff) leading Duncan to an area where he begins to kneel and pray so that we simultaneously see the witches buzzing and humming and Duncan praying.  Duncan kneels and prays with his sons; Macduff, however, doesn’t – he stands, with his arms folded, watching.  Duncan wears a huge cross around his neck, so we might assume he is engaging in Christian prayer.  Thus we are shown Duncan’s Christianity against the witches’ paganism, clashing like two cymbals.  This point is further stressed in later scenes with rituals and dolls. 
            Two of the witches speak calmly; the feverish one wails loudly, almost appearing to be in pain.  Thunder and lightning ripple.
            Recapping – the master strokes here are the fever, an introduction to the establishment of Macduff’s personality and character (which is greatly built upon shortly), and the referencing of Christianity.

                                                                        *


Jack Gold’s interpretation, done for the BBC Shakespeare series in the 1980s, is in some ways very traditional and conventional but quite bold and original in others; the opening scene of the play, with the witches, falls into the first category.  It is complete vanilla, total decaf. (Although we must acknowledge that Gold makes inventive use of the witches in later scenes.) The boring credit sequence does, however, do one thing, and that is establish the powerful soundtrack.  All four films we examine here make use of commentative music, but in this film it is truly noteworthy.
Two further points – of the four filmmakers I will discuss here, Gold was the most skillful with cinematic techniques at the time he made his Macbeth; and Barnet’s comments on this film in the Signet edition are overly dismissive and borderline disgraceful. 

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Rupert Goold’s 2009 film is even more “movie like” than Polanki’s in that it immediately establishes a strong mise-en-scene in the Cahiers du Cinema sense of the term.  Like Polanski, Goold  cuts Shakespeare’s dialogue and moves it around and, again like Polanski but in a more extreme way, he does so right off the bat, in the first scene, so that the “What bloody man is that?” scene comes first.  Here it’s done for the sake of modernity – the witches appear as nurses in a MASH unit (later they appear as kitchen help in Inverness, participating in the preparation of meals), handling modern medical equipment, but they are anything but nurserly.  In fact, they seem quite menacing.
            The film opens not with them but with a bloody hand opening and closing, then a quick cut to what looks like some stock war footage of canons and soldiers running in fields.  Next, in the same grainy black and white, we see Macbeth and Banquo in the woods, making their way back from the battle.  The three witches are dressed as nuns and, as we said, working as nurses upon the captain.  Their aprons are splattered with blood. 
            The body of the bloody captain convulses on the stretcher.  The narrow tunnel passageway, a minute before buzzing with people and activity, becomes eerily empty.  The captain’s heartbeat stops; he dies.  The first sister asks angrily when they should meet again, roaring the words.  When the third sister says “There to meet with…” she looks directly into the camera with a sinister glare, which is only appropriate since in the next moment she pulls the dead sergeant’s heart out of his chest with her bare hand.
            Each viewer has to decide for themselves to what degree they can accept this experimentalism.  My own inclination is to welcome this sort of risk taking, even if it causes small absurdities.  (An example – “Upon the heath”, yet, they meet with him not on any heath but in an empty banquet room.)   (Additionally, in this case flipping the order of the first two scenes around seems to matter in a way it does not in, for example, Kenneth Branagh’s 1988  production of Twelfth Night for the Thames Shakespeare Collection.)
            Finally, the strategy lends an interesting element to the sisters in the sense that it has them participating in dual realms, both in the real world action of the play (as nurses) and in their traditional role as supernatural predators. 

                                                                        *

In my opinion, Shakespeare’s comedies are much stronger than his tragedies.  The writing in the latter seem very forced to me as compared to the comedies,  which  flow quite a bit more smoothly and naturally and display a much deeper understanding of people.  The Deep Lofty takes a different view – if you happen to be reading a book on Shakespeare and the chapter or essay on Much Ado About Nothing is five pages and the one on Macbeth is twenty five…

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The number of debates and arguments about the three witches is infinite, and many of them down through the centuries have been of an essentially trivial nature; it does seem to be a no brainer that the Hecate scenes are by Middleton, or at least by someone other than Shakespeare.  
Hazlitt wrote of the difference between what he took to be Lady Macbeth’s eagerness and anticipation and the witches, who are “…who are equally instrumental in urging Macbeth to his fate for the mere love of mischief, and from a disinterested delight in deformity and cruelty.  They are hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction, because they are themselves unreal, abortive half-existences – who become sublime from their exemption from all human sympathies and contempt for all human affairs, as Lady Macbeth does from the force of her passion!”  We can let this quasi hysterical passage stand alone and speak for itself without a lot of comment, but I find it hard to refrain from remarking on the classification of Lady Macbeth as sublime, and when we get to the appropriate scenes I would like to revisit this as well as A.C.Bradley’s discussion of the character of the lady.
Lastly I beg your indulgence to briefly observe that some critics, for example Henry Cunningham (editor of the 1912 edition of the Arden Shakespeare) thought this scene to be spurious on the grounds that it contributes nothing to the drama; others, for example L.C. Knights, opined that this scene establishes a major theme of the play, which in his view is “the reversal of values”.

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Having the advantage of big Hollywood money at his disposal Polanski is able to set up grand outdoor shots – this scene (Act I, Scene 2) evidently takes place on the same coastline or beach where the three witches have just met and where, after the credits stop rolling, we have just seen a small and intensely brutal snippet of the battle – hair raising and not for the squeamish.  Thusly is made the interesting suggestion, with all its attendant implications, that the witches have previously visited the scene of the battle.
            Shakespeare’s poetry is butchered again here, but a lot of information is given visually.  For one thing Duncan, Malcolm, and Donalbain are on horseback, and so is the captain of “What bloody man is that?” fame.  In fact, accompanied by another rider, he approaches Duncan on his own power, as his own jockey.  Duncan is clearly older than everybody else but he is not the elderly, genteel sort at all. 
            As the man with the bloodied face speaks we would do well to focus on Malcolm and Donalbain.  While the story of Macbeth’s great bravery unfolds Malcolm is clearly upset and worried, dismayed to hear that Macbeth has done so well.  In contrast Donalbain laughs and celebrates along with everybody else (we will investigate the meaning of this laughter presently).  It is of special importance to notice Donalbain here in light of the non Shakespearean hook about him that Polanski throws in at the very end of the film, and to note Malcolm for the following reason: his fretting over Macbeth’s ascension shows that he is completely ignorant of his father’s intention to shortly name him the Prince of Cumberland.  Each of us can decide for ourselves what this means about the family’s dynamics and about Duncan’s communication skills.  It may mean absolutely nothing at all, but I don’t think this is a plausible interpretation of Polanski’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s intent. 
            Another unique feature here is that Ross, when Duncan and his sons thunder up to him on their mounts, is shown to have brought the treasonous, captured Thane of Cawdor along.  The thane is restrained on his back, shirtless, on a very painful looking device.  Duncan looks down at him with a glare of absolute loathing and hatred, and picks his thane’s medallion off his neck, by the chain, with his sword – casually flipping it to Ross to deliver to Macbeth.  This Duncan is a harsh, rough, unforgiving, brutal man, and this leads to a point I want to make about the laughter in this scene.
            At the end of the film when Macbeth’s head is put on a spike and paraded around, everyone laughs – they crack up at this as though it were entertainment provided by the court jester.  This is the same type of laughter that erupts when, in this scene, the bloodied soldier (in Shakespeare’s stage direction he is called a captain but Malcolm calls him a sergeant) speaks “Unseamed him from the nave to the chops” and the same kind of jeering group laughter we see later in the witches’ underground cave. Men who laugh at these kinds of things – a severed head, an unseaming, prophecies of great doom – can only be living in a savage, dog eat dog kind of world.  Too, of Macbeth, the line “Well he deserves that name” is not spoken directly but is instead spoken from afar, by someone off camera, kind of thrown into the conversation from left field. 

                                                                        *

Whereas in Polanksi’s film Duncan is on horseback, on the move, at the scene of his army’s victory, Casson’s film paints quite a different picture.  Here the king is elderly, stationary, immobile, barely able to move under his own power, presumably at camp or perhaps even in his castle.  He’s seen with his sons, Lennox, and Macduff (who is not identified and who, as far as I am able to tell, is not named as being present in this scene in any printed version of this play that I can find).  Yet repeated viewings show that one of Casson’s main intentions in this scene is to introduce Macduff and his bearing.
            Old Duncan, a large crucifix around his neck, is praying, head bowed, as are his sons and Lennox.  Macduff, however, doesn’t pray but stands over the others with his arms folded, observing, as if waiting to be convinced of something.  The bloodied soldier clacks up, and Duncan says only “What bloody man is that?”  “He can report…etc” is cut.  Casson, like Polanksi, edits the original, though perhaps not to an identical degree. 
            As the soldier begins to fall to the ground on “My gashes cry for help…” Macduff, anticipating, rushes forward to try and catch him – the second time in just a few minutes that we have seen him give literal physical support (he earlier assisted Duncan when the actors broke out of the circular theater in the round setting).  This all serves to immediately establish him as a strong, silent type, perhaps foreshadowing “I have no words – my voice is in my sword.” 
            After some overly theatrical screaming the bloodied messenger is led away to surgeons and Ross and Angus enter. 
            It occurs to me, seeing Macduff resume his place behind Duncan as Ross says “From Fife, great king” that Macduff is Thane of Fife – wouldn’t he be present at a battle taking place in his hometown?  In any case, here, as Ross speaks of the turning of Cawdor, a look of hurt, pain, and sorrow crosses Duncan’s face – nothing like the hatred and loathing that showed up on the face of Polanksi’s Duncan.  What a contrast in countenance!
            On “…the victory fell on us” those that were formerly in prayer return to it, while Macduff closes his eyes in thanks and visibly heaves a sigh of relief; and Ross presents a check for ten thousand from the Norweyan lord, a prop not used in any of the other three films we discuss here – a nice touch.
            According to Casson’s vision, Duncan speaks the lines about making Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor to Malcolm instead of to Ross, whereupon Malcolm, stunned and overwhelmed, stammers and hesitates.  Ross then touches Malcolm on the arm gently and says, “I’ll see it done.”  To my knowledge this interpretation is unique. 
            I’ll comment on a minor irritation here.  I understand this is theater tradition, and I also understand that in this case it may be due to budgetary restrictions; in live theater this would possibly go completely unnoticed but on film it is very obvious – the actors who play a witch, Donalbain, the bloody captain, and Ross all play other parts in the film as well, all too recognizably so.  This amounts to whacking the window pane of the suspension of disbelief with a sledgehammer.
           
                                                                        *

For the most part Jack Gold’s film adheres to a very straightforward, realist, traditional, conventional approach.  It’s a “fourth wall” type of philosophy with one or two small exceptions.  In this scene, as far as I am able to determine, not a single word from the original is cut.  Unlike the first two films, we don’t get a lot of silent, unarticulated angst on Malcolm’s part.  In fact he is portrayed as being open, honest, good hearted, earnest and loyal – not an anxiety ridden calculator. 
            In this scene three things dominate – the set and scenery, the bloody soldier, and Ross.  In other words, the basics.  And what basics indeed they are. 
            In a countryside lit by a firey red sky and a huge red ball of a sun, on what looks to be parched ground, with smoke and dust everywhere in the air, Duncan, his sons, Macduff, and other nobles come upon the bloodied captain, who is doubled over in pain, on his knees.  Macduff is present but, unlike in Casson’s film, he here is a virtual mannequin and quite irrelevant.  Gold has the camera start on the group and then backtrack, shooting from behind the captain, not quite over his shoulder.  After recognizing the captain and identifying him to the others, Malcolm moves forward to stand by him while he relays his knowledge of the broil.  Malcolm’s earnestness is indicated by the warm and hearty way he says, “Hail, brave friend.”
            This bleeding valiant man gazes around in a shocked daze, as if he cannot believe the king is really there, and he shakes himself free from Malcolm’s steadying, reassuring grasp as if to say Don’t touch me, I’m all right.  Yet he holds his side as he speaks and when, after making an unseaming gesture with an air sword, he grimaces mightily in pain, clutching his side.
            As he speaks he looks down, and to the side, in the kind of eye movement that contemporary schools of psychology such as Neuro Linguistic Programming would claim  is significant -  he is looking into the past in his mind’s eye..  Thusly, the depth of preparation here on the part of both the actor and the director is really impressive.
And when Duncan asks if Macbeth and Banquo were dismayed by the second attack he looks at the king with what is almost contempt before answering.  Unlike Polanski’s and Casson’s films, where the bloody man simply has some blood on his face, here there is a true attempt to realistically portray a wound, to portray suffering.  As the captain is being led away on “Go, get him surgeons” Ross and Angus are already stepping into the frame from the rear. 
This is perhaps noteworthy, I don’t know – when Ross and Angus kneel before Duncan Angus is a step or two behind Ross, and he stays there during Ross’ reports (this is repeated shortly when the two of  them seek out Macbeth and Banquo).  I assume this is meant to signal that Angus is of a slightly lower rank.  The set design of small hills smoking with the residue of battle is deeply impressive – this is moviemaking that understands the collaborative nature of presenting Shakespeare to people who might not be all that familiar with his works. 
Ross speaks calmly, composedly, conversationally (as is not the case in any of the other films).  The outstanding characteristic of his report to Duncan is that he seems both a little surprised and a little hesitant to hear that Macbeth is being made Thane of Cawdor, which perhaps might lead us to conclude he is a little wary of Macbeth and might just perceive his (Macbeth’s) behavior to be reckless and crazy rather than brave.

                                                                        *
Since, as mentioned, Goold plays with the order of the scenes, the bloody captain’s speech/report is essentially the first impression of the play a novice viewer gets.  He opens with traditional Hollywood style establishing shots – in this case, what appears to be stock World War Two footage gotten from a library or newsreels.  This is followed by quick cuts to Macbeth and Banquo making their way through the woods to reach what I’ll call Tunnelworld, which is where most of the play takes place (although the larger geographical location would seem to be a mid twentieth century European dictatorship).
Dramatic music is played over the shots of the feet of the three witches pushing the stretcher that holds the bloody captain.  It dawns on us that Tunnelworld is being shelled, bombed, is still under attack, as Duncan and his entourage come upon the bloody man.  This is unique.  In the other films, indeed I would venture to say in most presentations of the work, the fighting is finished, done with and over by this time. 
            The bloody captain is on the stretcher with his chest ripped open; he chokes out the speech as a last defiant shield against death, but it doesn’t work – he dies.  He talks to Duncan as Malcolm and Donalbain flank him on either side, supporting him, their gazes moving from the captain to their father.  When he speaks of the hare and the lion he guffaws; when he speaks of the unseaming both Malcolm and Donalbain smile broadly.  It almost looks as if the three witches kill him, unplug his machine (this film features much twentieth century technology) although I can’t be sure about this. 
As Duncan and his sons make their way through the maze of Tunnelworld, Ross runs up to them, out of breath.  This is a geeky, meek Ross, a little bit of a nerd.  On the news of Cawdor’s betrayal Duncan gives a look somewhere between the Christian heartbreak of Casson’s Duncan and the murderous vengeance of Polanski’s.  The reference to the funds Macbeth’s victorious army has received from Norway is deleted; Malcolm emits an enthusiastic whoop on “The victory fell on us.”  One of the witches walks right by Duncan on “…noble Macbeth hath won.”  This insertion of the witches into the body of the action gives the film a very eerie, supernatural edge. 



                                                            *
A brief recap: in the four films we see Duncan depicted in four very different ways – on horseback, vigorous and ornery, at the scene of the concluded battle; humbly and meekly praying; walking with his entourage near the scene of the battle; and in a mobile army hospital that is being bombed by the enemy. 

                                                            





           




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Macbeth - Royal Shakespeare Company 1978

MACBETH (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1978)

            I’ve considered a couple of other adaptations of Macbeth that are available on DVD here on this blog – the 2009 PBS production, the 1987 BBC one – in some level of detail, and have not ventured much into some other well known efforts such as Orson Welles’ (which is in my view guilty of editing Shakespeare beyond justification, a deed that works in the director’s Othello because of the great beauty of the film, but not here), Roman Polanksi’s (which I will  have some things to say about, eventually) and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Of these major DVDs of the play I suppose this 1978 offering, directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, is the most theater like – and perhaps nothing can bring out the differences between film and theater, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of both, like Shakespeare can.  This RSC effort requires, and deserves, several careful viewings.  Nuance is the order of the day, from a heavily Christianized Duncan to a Macduff who (silently) assumes the role of chief caretaker and bodyguard to Duncan.
            Here are some observations, by no means exhaustive.






















  1. An overhead shot of the playing space begins the film.
  2. The actors appear on stage and take seats in a circular arrangement.  The same church music, on organ, that will play when Macbeth is crowned plays on the soundtrack.  Defining the space this way helps establish boundaries and perspective for the viewer.
  3. The weird sisters emerge from different parts of the circle and join together, chanting and moaning.
  4. Simultaneously Duncan, his sons, and a few lords pray in an indentifiably Christian way.  Notice that Macduff stands with his arms folded while the others pray.  Duncan wears a large cross around his neck and blesses himself with the sign of the cross.  Director Philip Casson in this way makes a comment about ceremony and ritual, clashing Duncan’s Christianity against the witches’ paganism and occult activities.
  5. “What bloody man is that?” 
  6. Greeting Ross.
  7. A truly fascinating take on the scene, and one that helps upset A.C. Bradley type views that Shakespeare exists mainly on the page.  Duncan gives the instruction to tell Macbeth he is now Thane of Cawdor.  Most directors show this as Duncan speaking directly to Ross, however he is speaking the order to Malcolm, who is visibly shaken.  Malcolm hesitates and stammers; Ross gently touches him on the arm and comfortingly says, “I’ll see it done.” A bravura visual reading of the written scene.
  8. Macbeth and Banquo come upon the witches.  This is a powerful Macbeth-Banquo pairing that other productions seem to lack.  McKellen and Woodvine are perfect together in the roles.  The chemistry of a loose, edgy Macbeth with the much more dignified Banquo is stunning.
  9. “Two truths are told…”
  10. “Look how our partner’s rapt.”  The word “rapt” appears often in the early scenes.
  11. The Prince of Cumberland scene is about the only one in which the dark, ominous tone of shadow is replaced with brightness, most especially in the form of Duncan’s robe and the crown.  Notice the light shining on Malcolm but not on Duncan or Macbeth.
  12. She reads the letter and starts in with her “milk of human kindness” fretting.  Dench is much stronger in the role in every other scene than she is in this one.  The circular twirls and the little “Oh!” she throws in don’t seem to me to quite fit.
  13. The lighting of her face is sensational.  Awesome cinematography.
  14. “Our gentle senses.”  Duncan exudes more cluelessness.
  15. “If it were done when tis done…” Professor Peter Saccio, giant of Shakespeare study, says this is the best performance of this passage that he has seen.
  16. Notice the difference in perspective in this shot-reverse shot framing.
  17. “How goes the night, boy?”  Banquo in silhouette.
  18. Off to kill Duncan with his sleeve rolled up.
  19. The Porter scene in this film is quite funny because of the camera movements.  A great touch of humor!
  20. “Thou hast it all now…” Banquo on the cusp.
  21. “Have you considered of my speeches?” Was Banquo really the enemy of these men, or is Macbeth just stirring up trouble?
  22. The best of the cutthroats. 
  23. With the witches a second time.  They use dolls, candles, and tattoos,  again pointing up the ceremonial, ritualistic nature of their practice.
  24. The Macduffs.  A problem – Lady Macduff is too easily identifiable as one of the three witches.  This playing of multiple is true of a few of the cast members.  I understand all the reasons for it, but in the cinema it is problematic.
  25. Malcolm and Macduff plot the attack.
  26. Sleepwalking grief.  “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
  27. One of the weird sisters’ dolls – Macbeth keeps it with him.
  28. A break with the heretofore strictly kept “filmed play” aesthetic.
  29. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” McKellen is presented in a perspiring, fever like manner.